Sunday, September 29, 2019

It’s Not Just a Competition—it’s a Fight!

(Twenty-sixth Sunday of the Year (C): This homily was given on September 30, 2019 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Amos 6:1-7; Psalm 146:7-10; 1 Timothy 6:11-16; Luke 16:19-31.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Twenty-sixth Sunday 2019]

It’s not just a competition—it’s a fight!

That’s my message to you today in one line (of course, the homily will be slightly longer than that!).

The word “competition” can describe many different types of activities.  A football game, for example, is certainly a competition—but so is a game of scrabble or a game of tiddlywinks!  A fight, on the other hand, is a very specific kind of competition, namely a VIOLENT ONE!  A fighter’s intention when he enters the ring, as we all know, is to knock his opponent out—to render his opponent unconscious—to put his opponent into a physical condition where he’s incapable of doing any more harm.

Now, why do I mention this today?  It’s because of our second reading—that passage we just heard from 1 Timothy 6.

First, a little background is in order. In the early 1990s, a new version of the New American Bible was published.  It contained a revised and re-translated New Testament (for the most part, the Old Testament remained the same in both the old and new editions).

This revised New American translation is the one that we use for our New Testament readings here at Mass on Sundays.  It’s been that way for a couple of decades now.

I do not know who the translators were who worked on this new edition of the New American Bible—I couldn’t tell you any of their names—but I can tell you one thing about them with absolute certainty: when they did their translating THEY DID NOT KEEP IN MIND THE DISTINCTION I JUST SHARED WITH YOU BETWEEN A COMPETITION AND A FIGHT!

Look again at that text from 1 Timothy 6.  There Paul says to Timothy (and, by extension, to all of us): “Compete well for the faith”—or at least that’s how it’s translated in this revised New American version.

Compete well for the faith” . . . Doesn’t that sound inspiring?  Isn’t that a powerful line?  Doesn’t it just make you want to go out and conquer the world for Jesus?

Well, if it does, God bless you—because it does absolutely nothing for me!  To me that line sounds blah—and lifeless—and wimpy!  It’s as if St. Paul were comparing the spiritual challenges of this life to a game of scrabble or tiddlywinks! 

I like the way this line was translated in the older version of the New American Bible—which is also the way it’s translated in the New Revised Standard Version and the King James Version and just about every other English version that’s out there! 

It reads: “Fight the good fight of faith!”

Now there’s a verse that has some power and conviction behind it!  There’s a verse that conveys the real truth of what this life is about for the true believer!  There’s a verse which makes it crystal clear that ultimately this life is not a friendly game of tiddlywinks with satan; it’s a fight of faith—a fight in which someone wants to knock us out—permanently!  This is why St. Peter says in his first letter, “Stay sober and alert.  Your opponent the devil is prowling like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.  Resist him, solid in your faith.”

Now the good news is this is a fight we can win—by the grace of God, through faith.  (Peter makes that clear in this verse; Paul certainly believed that as well.)

But to win the fight we’ve first got to know that we’re in a fight—a fight for our soul!

And the fight is not primarily with those worldly and ungodly people out there who are actively promoting moral evils like abortion and sexual promiscuity (although it definitely does include opposition to those evils).

In my attempt to fight my “good fight of faith,” for example, my most troublesome opponent is not the woman who wrote an unkind note to me last weekend because I spoke the truth about homosexual activity and transgenderism in my homily. My most troublesome opponents are not the folks at Planned Parenthood or the pro-abortion politicians in our government who annoy me constantly.

In my attempt to live out this Scripture passage from 1 Timothy 6 on a daily basis, my most difficult opponent is me!  And that’s the way it will always be until the day I die!

By the same token, your most difficult opponent in your “fight of faith” (whether you realize it or not) is YOU!

You see, we each have a unique set of inner temptations and inner struggles that are constantly pulling us away from Jesus Christ.  These are the forces that we must constantly fight against! 

The inner temptations relate to the 7 deadly sins: pride, lust, greed, gluttony, anger, envy and sloth.

The inner struggles we have are rooted in the circumstances of our lives and the defects in our personalitiesSome of us, for example, have to battle moodiness; some of us tend to make rash judgments; some of us tend to lose our tempers easily; some of us tend to hold grudges—those are just a few possible personality defects.

But don’t feel too bad, because even the great saints of the past have had these inner struggles!  St. Paul had his “thorn in the flesh,” which he spoke about in 2 Corinthians 12; Thomas the apostle was prone to doubt; Peter’s weakness appears to have been his hot temper.

For St. Teresa of Calcutta (Mother Teresa) it was the spiritual darkness she had to deal with for many years.   That was one of the areas of her life where she had to fight her good fight of faith.

And it wasn’t easy, as we know from the things she wrote over the years to her spiritual director.

But she did it—and she won!

She was victorious—through Jesus and his saving grace—in her personal fight of faith.

We can also be victorious in ours—if we do what she and the great saints did and go on the offensive in the fight!  That’s key! We go on the offensive when we make our relationship with Jesus Christ the most important relationship in our life, and when we actively pursue the virtues, some of which St. Paul mentions in this passage: “righteousness, devotion, faith, love, patience and gentleness.” 

This, by the way, is the purpose of the ChristLife program that we’ll be starting here at St. Pius in a few weeks.  It’s designed to help you to go on the offensive, and become a better fighter in your own personal fight of faith.

And that’s extremely important to do, my brothers and sisters (to become a better fighter), because this is one fight—one competition—that you definitely do NOT want to lose!

Sunday, September 22, 2019

The ‘Children of This World,’ the ‘Children of Light’—and the ‘Ungodly’

(Twenty-fifth Sunday of the Year (C): This homily was given on September 20, 2019 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Amos 8:4-7; Psalm 113:1-8; 1 Timothy 2:1-8; Luke 16: 1-13.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Twenty-fifth Sunday 2019]

Here we have a very strange parable from Luke 16—a parable that's extremely difficult to interpret.  And yet, I would say that this little story has a very important and timely message for all Americans of the early 21st century—especially all Catholic Americans.  It concerns a corrupt steward who was guilty of squandering his master's property.  That means quite simply that he was an embezzler.  His boss had given him authority to manage his estate, and he had deceitfully taken his boss “to the cleaners” in the process.  (The thought occurred to me the other day: perhaps this guy was a first century ancestor of Bernie Madoff.  Remember him?  He’s the financier who got a 150 year prison sentence in 2009 for taking his clients to the cleaners to the tune of over $50 billion dollars!)

Anyway, this steward in the parable finally gets caught with his hand in the till, and he's given the proverbial “boot.”   But before the boss dismisses him, he tells the embezzler to render an account of his stewardship. Now at this point, the corrupt steward knows two things for certain: he knows that his present job is history, and he knows that he'll soon be out on the street without any friends.  (You see, in first century Palestine, stewards like this were deeply hated, because they normally charged their master's debtors HUGE amounts of interest.)  So the crafty steward makes a very prudent decision: he decides to dispense with his “commission” in order to make some new friends.  He calls in his master's debtors, and tells them to pay only the amount that they owe the master.  Well, to put it mildly, those debtors must have been ecstatic to hear this news!  They probably said to the steward, “Wow, you're a great guy.  Thanks so much!  If you ever need a favor, if you ever need a job, just come and see us.”  At that, the steward probably responded (under his breath), “That's just what I was hoping you'd say.  You'll all be hearing from me very soon.”

At that point, the master commends the steward for “acting prudently”.  Not for being dishonest and embezzling his money, but rather for being “prudent” and enterprising.  The steward had a worldly goal (settling affairs with his master and providing for his future), and he did what was necessary within the law to achieve it.  Then Jesus offers this biting comment on the whole story: “For the children of this world are more prudent in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.”  In other words, “People with worldly ambitions will do almost anything to achieve their goals: they'll make sacrifices, they'll plan, they'll study, they'll work extremely hard like this steward did.  Wouldn't it be wonderful if people of faith had as much zeal for the things of God?  Wouldn't it be wonderful if people of faith had as much concern about moral righteousness and about getting to heaven?!”

I really believe that Jesus told this parable in order to shake us and wake us up!  And boy, do we need a wake-up call right now in the United States of America!  Because in our culture at the present time it's not only the “children of this world” who take more initiative than the “children of light”—it's also the UNGODLY who outdo the children of light in zeal and determination.  Think of the zeal of militant atheists like Richard Dawkins and Bill Maher; think of the shameless leaders of Planned Parenthood, who’ve turned baby-killing in the United States into a multi-million dollar industry in recent decades.  When they were exposed a few years ago for selling fetal body parts, they should have been embarrassed and humiliated.  But they weren’t.  In fact, many of their leaders and supporters are more militant now than ever before!

Or how about the gay-rights activists in this country?  For the last 40 or so years, mostly through their willing accomplices in Hollywood and the media, they’ve effectively “de-sensitized” the majority of our citizens to the immorality of homosexual activity.  That took a lot of hard work—by a lot of people.  But they had the zeal and determination to do whatever needed to be done to change public opinion on the matter.  And for the most part, sad to say, they’ve succeeded.

The same thing is now happening with transgenderism.  Transgenderism used to be listed as a mental disorder by the American Psychiatric Association.  Then, late in 2012, it was suddenly removed from the list.  And what incredible, monumental scientific discovery led to this radical change, you ask?

Well the truth is there was none.  There was no science behind the change.  The guys and gals at the American Psychiatric Association simply bowed to social and political pressure from those who wanted to make what’s abnormal seem normal.

And it’s only gotten worse since then.  Now we even have drag queens reading stories to little children in public libraries all over the country.  Now isn’t that a great way to help young people to understand their identity as male or female?

Can you imagine something like this happening 30 or 20—or even 10—years ago?

I can’t.

Those of us who want to be numbered among the children of light need to get a healthy dose of prudence and zeal ourselves—and we need to get it quickly, because western culture is decaying all around us very quickly.

And this all has to begin, I believe, in Catholic and Christian families, with parents who have prudence and zeal and who are willing to discuss these difficult issues with their children—so that their children will develop prudence and zeal in their young lives and not be taken in by the lies of the world.  Don’t count on their schools or colleges to do it!  Even though we have many great teachers out there, all too many of them these days are among those who are promoting the lies (and that includes many who teach at Catholic institutions!).  St. Paul says in today’s second reading that God wants everyone to be saved and to come to know the truth.  That truth should be learned first in a person’s family, and then it should be reaffirmed and reinforced in a person’s church—which is what we try to do here at St. Pius.  In fact, that’s one of the reasons why we’re starting youth group again next Sunday night at Junk and Java: we want to reaffirm and reinforce what these young people are hearing (hopefully) at home in their families.

“For the children of this world are more prudent in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.” 

That was true when Jesus walked the face of this earth 2,000 years ago; unfortunately it’s still true today.  But it doesn’t have to be true in the future!

At least for us, as individuals, it doesn’t have to be true.  By the grace of God, if we choose we can be more prudent and zealous and passionate and have more initiative than those who oppose us.  And, if enough of us—enough “children of light”—make this same choice, the decay can be stopped and the culture can be turned around and saved.

Which means that we have to do our part as individuals and as families; and then, as Msgr. Struck used to say, we have to “pray, pray, pray”!

Sunday, September 08, 2019

Legality and Morality

(Twenty-third Sunday of the Year (C): This homily was given on September 8, 2019 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Wisdom 9:13-18b; Psalm 90:3-17; the Letter of St. Paul to Philemon; Luke 14:25-33.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Twenty-third Sunday 2019]

What do the following things have in common (aside from the fact that they’re all evil)? 
  •          Slavery
  •          Segregation
  •          Abortion
  •          Producing pornography
  •          Physician-assisted suicide
  •          The Holocaust
  •          Prostitution
  •          Apartheid

The answer is: Somewhere in the world, at some time in the recent or distant past, all those things I just mentioned have been legal.

And some still are.

Slavery was legal in the United States until 1865.  In other countries it’s still legal.  The Civil Rights’ Movement in the 1960s happened because at the time segregation was legal in many of our southern states.  The Supreme Court legalized abortion in 1973.  Producing pornography is a legal, billion dollar industry in the United States and in most other places.  Seven states in our country have legalized physician-assisted suicide in recent years.  So has Washington, D.C.  Hitler legalized the Holocaust himself.  According to one organization that monitors such things, prostitution is legal in more than 70 countries in the world right now—and in our own state of Nevada.  Apartheid only ended in South Africa a couple of decades ago.

Many people in our country confuse legality with morality.  Thus they presume that if something becomes legal, it automatically becomes moral.  But that’s not the case, as these 8 examples illustrate quite clearly.  Slavery, segregation, abortion, producing pornography, physician-assisted suicide, the Holocaust, prostitution and apartheid are all immoral whether or not they’re legal in any country or every country.

Which brings us to today’s second reading, which is taken from one of the shortest books in the New Testament—St. Paul’s Letter to Philemon.

Philemon was a wealthy Colossian man who had become a believer in Christ through Paul’s missionary efforts. He was also a slave owner, like many other wealthy men of his time. Lest we forget, in the first century world slavery was pretty much a universal phenomenon.  In the Roman Empire it was certainly legal, and since Christians had no political influence at the time, men like St. Paul were in no position to change existing Roman laws.  The most someone like Paul could do in Colossians 4 and in Ephesians 6 was to tell masters to treat their slaves with fairness and with kindness, so hopefully Philemon treated his slaves with greater respect after his conversion.

But nonetheless he did own them.  

One of these slaves was a young man named Onesimus. Well at some point prior to the writing of this letter, Onesimus had escaped from Philemon—and he had taken some of his master’s “stuff” in the process! That made Onesimus a thief as well as a runaway slave.

But then he met St. Paul, who happily converted him to Christ. (Paul at the time was in prison.) The apostle then sent Onesimus back to Philemon; he sent the runaway slave back to his master—along with this letter.

He sent him back because of the existing civil law in the Roman Empire, but in the process he made clear that he wanted Philemon to freely make the choice to do what was morally right, and disregard what was legally permitted.

His message to the slave owner was basically, “Look, I could order you to do the right thing here and free Onesimus, since I’m your spiritual father: I’m the one who brought you to Christ. But I’m not going to do that. I want you to do the right thing of your own free will. I want you to choose to act virtuously here. So I’m honoring the law of the Roman Empire—unjust though it is—and I’m sending Onesimus back to you. But please understand that after he escaped from your service, I brought him to the faith. He’s also my spiritual child now. And if he’s my spiritual child and you’re my spiritual child that makes the two of you brothers: brothers in the Lord. So I ask you to receive him back as your brother and not as your slave. And if he owes you anything because of what he stole, charge it to me. As his father and as his friend, I’ll be more than happy to pay his bill.”

St. Paul understood that legality and morality are two different things in this fallen world of ours.  In a perfect world, of course, they would be the same.  Exactly the same!  In a perfect world without any sin in it, all of our civil laws would be rooted in the natural moral law (that’s the law we find, primarily, in the Ten Commandments).

But this world is far from perfect—as we see every election year when we go to the polls to vote for the people who want to be the makers of our laws.  And so, as Catholics—as Christians—the important question, the key question, the crucial question for us on Election Day should always be: Which candidate will best support the natural moral law in his or her legislative work?  In other words, which one will do the most to make what’s moral, legal?

And that’s the person we should vote for—always!

Sunday, September 01, 2019

The Irony of Humility

(Twenty-second Sunday of the Year (C): This homily was given on September 1, 2019 St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Sirach 3:17-29; Psalm 68:4-11; Hebrews 5:18-24A; Luke 14:1, 7-14.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Twenty-second Sunday 2019

You could call it “the irony of humility” or “the irony about humility”.  The irony of humility is this:

  •          The more you consider yourself to be humble, the less humble you actually are. 
  •          The more you think that you’ve mastered the virtue of humility in your life, the less humility you actually have in your heart.

Thinking that you’re humble, my brothers and sisters, is really a manifestation of pride (which, of course, is one of the seven deadly sins!).  You might say that the person who thinks he’s humble is merely proud of his humility—although he misunderstands what humility actually is.

Jesus makes the importance of humility crystal clear in this gospel text we just heard from Luke 14, as does Sirach in our first reading when he says, My child, conduct your affairs with humility, and you will be loved more than a giver of gifts.  Humble yourself the more, the greater you are, and you will find favor with God.”

Now, contrary to popular belief, the genuinely humble person does not think less of himself than he should.  That’s a very common misunderstanding.  Thinking less of yourself than you should is called “having a poor self-image”—and that’s not what the Lord wants for us.  Quite oppositely, the genuinely humble person DOES think of himself as he should—because he knows and accepts the full truth about himself!  The genuinely humble person knows, for example, that he’s created in the image and likeness of God, and as such has a dignity and value beyond anything else in the material universe.  He also understands that God loves him just as he is—but too much to let him stay that way!

The genuinely humble person knows that he’s been given gifts—that he’s been blessed in special and unique ways by God—and that everything that’s truly good in his life and in his heart comes ultimately from the Lord.  So he gives God (and not himself) the glory for all of it.  And, at the very same time, the genuinely humble person sees himself as a wretched sinner: a sinner who needs reconciliation with God every single day!  He knows that he can’t save himself by his good deeds; he knows that he can’t earn God’s forgiveness by his own power; and so every day he makes the tax collector’s prayer his own: “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.” 

Thus the truly humble person would never make the mistake of taking the place of prominence at the banquet table that Jesus talks about in this gospel text.  He’d know better.

I came across a great quote of Mother Teresa’s this past week about humility.  Mother Teresa said, “If you are humble nothing will touch you, neither praise nor disgrace, because you know what you are. If you are blamed you will not be discouraged. If they call you a saint you will not put yourself on a pedestal.”

Whenever I read a quote like that, I realize how far I have to go to achieve genuine humility in my own life.  But that’s to be expected, because growing in humility is a lifelong process: a process which will only stop when we go before the Lord at the end of our earthly lives and see ourselves in God’s perfect light. Then, and only then, will we see his greatness and our weakness with perfect clarity.

Now if ever, in the future, you are tempted to think otherwise; if ever, in the future, you are tempted to think that you no longer need to be part of this process—that you no longer need to grow in the virtue of humility in your life—my suggestion is to get yourself a copy of the Litany of Humility and read it.  Read it slowly; read it carefully; think about what you’re saying.  That should help to cure you of your pride very quickly.

Without a doubt, this is one of the most difficult and challenging prayers that’s ever been written.  In all honesty, because of my own pride, I have a very hard time praying it from my heart.  Interestingly enough, it was written in the early 20th century by Cardinal Merry del Val—who was the Vatican Secretary of State under Pope St. Pius X.  I’ll conclude my homily today by reading the prayer to you.  Some of you know it, I’m sure.  By the way, if you do know it, I would respectfully ask you not to pray it out loud along with me today.  Just listen.  Just listen carefully to the words:

O Jesus, meek and humble of heart, hear me.

From the desire of being esteemed, deliver me, Jesus.
From the desire of being loved, deliver me, Jesus.
From the desire of being extolled, deliver me, Jesus.
From the desire of being honored, deliver me, Jesus.
From the desire of being praised, deliver me, Jesus.
From the desire of being preferred to others, deliver me, Jesus.
From the desire of being consulted, deliver me, Jesus.
From the desire of being approved, deliver me, Jesus.

From the fear of being humiliated, deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of being despised, deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of suffering rebukes, deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of being calumniated, deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of being forgotten, deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of being ridiculed, deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of being wronged, deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of being suspected, deliver me, Jesus.

That others may be loved more than I, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.
That others may be esteemed more than I, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.
That, in the opinion of the world, others may increase and I may decrease, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.
That others may be chosen and I set aside, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.
That others may be praised and I unnoticed, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.
That others may be preferred to me in everything, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.
That others may become holier than I, provided that I may become as holy as I should, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.

If you can say that prayer—and truly mean it!—it’s a sign that you’re on the right road in your life.  And that’s great!  Praise God for his grace at work within you!  But then don’t make the mistake—the catastrophic mistake—of thinking you’ve reached the goal of becoming a genuinely humble person, because (as I said at the beginning of my homily) the minute—the second—you think you’re humble, you’re not!

That’s the irony of humility.  It’s also the truth.